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Ashland Theological Seminary 

Ashland, Ohio Spring 1980 

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LYRASIS members and Sloan Foundation 

Ashland Theological Seminary 

Ashland, Ohio 


Spring, 1980 


Introduction to the Current Issue — — — — — — — — — 2 


by Greg L. Bahnsen 

The Biblical Exemplar 
But Is This Paul at His Best? 
Intellectual Backgrounds 
Paul's Encounter with the Philosophers 
Paul's Presuppositional Procedure 
The Unbeliever's Ignorance 
The Authority of Revelational Knowledge 
Culpable Suppression of the Truth 
Scriptural Presuppositions 
Pressing the Antithesis 

Calling for Repentence and Change of Mindset 
The Outcome of Paul's Apologetic 
Observations in Retrospect 

Editorial Committee: Joseph N. Kickasola, Editor 

Owen H. Alderfer 
Joseph R. Shultz, President 

Vol. XIII No. 1 

Published by Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland, Ohio 44805 

Introduction to the Current Issue 

The 1980 issue of the Ashland Theological Bulletin is com- 
prised of a single article by Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen, a Scholar-in- 
Residence at Ashland Theological Seminary for Spring Quarter, 
1980. The focus of "The Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens" is 
the exegesis of Paul's speech at Athens in Acts 17, and its relation- 
ship to Pauline texts (especially Romans 1) with respect to the 
theme of method in apologetics and witnessing. We are happy to 
present this learned and practical piece to our readers, both as a 
study of Scripture and as a memorial of the Bahnsen Lectureship 
among us. Dr. Bahnsen, a scholar, teacher and writer in the Re- 
formed tradition, taught three courses Spring Quarter in the area 
of Christian thought: Philosophy of Christianity, Christian Ethics, 
and Christianity and Politics. The lecturer's learning, zeal for 
Scriptural truth and gentleness of manner were appreciated by stu- 
dents and faculty alike. 

Rev. Greg L. Bahnsen, Ph.D., 32 years of age, ordained minis- 
ter in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is married and has four 
children. Formerly he was Assistant Professor of Apologetics at Re- 
formed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. He is a gradu- 
ate of Westmont College, B.A.; Westminster Theological Seminary, 
M. Div. and Th. M.; and the University of Southern California, 
Ph.D. in Philosophy. He has served as the Youth Pastor, First 
Presbyterian Church, Manhattan Beach, California; Assistant Pas- 
tor, Calvary United Presbyterian Church, Wyncote, Pennsylvania; 
and Pastor, Trinity Chapel, Eagle Rock, California. Among his 
publications are Theonomy in Christian Ethics; Homosexuality: A 
Biblical View; and A Biblical Introduction to Apologetics. His arti- 
cles include "Autographs, Amanuenses, and Restricted Inspiration" 
in Evangelical Quarterly, "Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of 
Christian Apologetics" and "Pragmatism, Prejudice, and Presuppo- 
sitionalism" in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, "Inducti- 
vism. Inerrancy, and Presuppositionalism" in Journal of the Evan- 
gelical Theological Society, and other articles, letters and reviews 
in the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Re- 
construction, Presbyterian Guardian, Presbyterian Journal, Banner 
of Truth, Cambridge Fish, and Chalcedon Reports. Dr. Bahnsen is 
a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, Evangelical Phil- 
osophical Society, and the Advisory Board of ICBI (International 

Council on Biblical Inerrancy, at whose Chicago Summit in 1978, 
incidently, this editor met brother Bahnsen for the first time). At 
the present moment our author is a fi^ee-lance writer, and filling 
many pulpits, lectureships and seminars, especially in the areas of 
ethics and politics. He is currently residing in Orange, California. 
This edition represents three firsts. Dr. Bahnsen is the Semi- 
nary's first guest lecturer to come for a whole quarter's residence, 
and we thank him for this spring issue which is appearing in the 
summer after the conclusion of this residence. Secondly, this 1980 
issue is the first issue in the decade of the eighties. It is our hope, if 
Jesus tarry, that this decade will be the best one for the Bulletin 
and its witness. Lastly, this issue is the first of my editorship. The 
Bulletin and the Seminary wish to thank Dr. Owen Alderfer for 
his faithful work as editor, 1968-1979 (Vols. I-XII), and we affec- 
tionately wish him the Lord's very best in his new ministry this 
fall at Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania. 

— Joseph N. Kickasola, Editor 

The Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens 

Greg L. Bahnsen, Ph.D. 

Scholar-in-Residence, Spring 1980 

Ashland Theological Seminary 

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is 
there between the Academy and the Church? . . . Our instructions 
come from "the porch of Solomon" .... Away with all attempts to 
produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic 
composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing 
Christ Jesus. . . ! 

So said Tertullian in his Prescription against Heretics (VII).Tertul- 
lian's question, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?, 
dramatically expresses one of the perennial issues in Christian 
thought — a problem which cannot be escaped by any biblical inter- 
preter, theologian, or apologist. We all operate on the basis of some 
answer to that question, whether we give it explicit and thoughtful 
attention or not. It is not a matter of whether we will answer the 
question, but only of how well we will do so. 

What does Tertullian's question ask? It inquires into the prop- 
er relation between Athens, the prime example of secular learning, 
and Jerusalem, the symbol of Christian commitment and thought. 
How does the proclamation of the Church relate to the teaching of 
the philosophical Academy? In one way or another, this question 
has constantly been before the mind of the church. How should 
faith and philosophy interact? Which has controlling authority 
over the other? How should the believer respond to alleged conflicts 
between revealed truth and extrabiblical instruction (in history, 
science, or what have you)? What is the proper relation between 
reason and revelation, between secular opinion and faith, between 
what is taught outside the church and what is preached inside? 

This issue is particularly acute for the Christian apologist. 
When a believer offers a reasoned defense of the Christian hope 
that is within him (in obedience to I Peter 3:15), it is more often 
than not set forth in the face of some conflicting perspective. As we 
evangelize unbelievers in our culture, they rarely hold to the au- 
thority of the Bible and submit to it from the outset. The very rea- 
son most of our friends and neighbors need an evangelistic witness 
is that they hold a different outlook on life, a different philosophy. 

a different authority for their thinking. How, then, does the apolo- 
gist respond to the conflicting viewpoints and sources of truth giv- 
en adherence by those to whom he witnesses? What should he 
think "Athens" has to do with "Jerusalem" just here? 

Christians have long disagreed over the proper strategy to be 
assumed by a believer in the face of unbelieving opinions or schol- 
arship. Some renounce extra-biblical learning altogether ("Jerusa- 
lem versus Athens"). Others reject biblical teaching when it con- 
flicts with secular thought ("Athens versus Jerusalem"). Some try 
to appease both sides, saying that the Bible and reason have their 
own separate domains ("Jerusalem segregated from Athens"). Oth- 
ers attempt a mingling of the two, holding that we can find isolated 
elements of supportive truth in extrabiblical learning ("Jerusalem 
integrated with Athens"). Still others maintain that extrabiblical 
reasoning can properly proceed only upon the foundation of biblical 
truth ("Jerusalem the capital of Athens"). 

The Biblical Exemplar 

Now it turns out that the Bible has not left us in the dark in 
answering Tertullian's important question. Luke's account of the 
early church. The Acts of the Apostles, offers a classic encounter 
between biblical commitment and secular thought. And appro- 
priately enough, this encounter takes place between a superb rep- 
resentative of "Jerusalem" — the apostle Paul — and the intellectu- 
als of Athens. The exemplary meeting between the two is present- 
ed in Acts 17. 

Throughout the book of Acts Luke shows us how the ascended 
Christ established His church through the apostles. We are given a 
selective recounting of main events and sermons which exhibit the 
powerful and model work of Christ's servants. They have left us a 
pattern to follow with respect to both our message and method to- 
day. Thus it is highly instructive for contemporary apologists to 
study the way the apostles, like Paul, reasoned and supported their 
message of hope (cf I Pet. 3:15). Paul was an expert at suiting his 
approach to each unique challenge, and so the manner in which he 
confronted the Athenian unbelievers who did not profess submis- 
sion to the Old Testament scriptures — like most unbelievers in our 
own culture — will be noteworthy for us. 

We know that Paul's approach to such pagans — ^for instance, 
those at Thessalonica, where he had been shortly before coming to 
Athens — was to call them to turn from idols to serve the living and 
true God and to wait for His resurrected Son who would judge the 
world at the consummation (cf. I Thes. 1:1-10). In preaching to 

those who were deaicated to idols Paul naturally had to engage in 
apologetical reasoning. Proclamation was inseparable from defense, 
as F. F. Bruce observes: 

The apostolic preaching was obliged to include an apologetic ele- 
ment if the stumbling-block of the cross was to be overcome; the 
kerygma . . . must in some degree be apologia. And the apologia 
was not the invention of the apostles; they had all "received" 
it — received it from the Lord.^ 

The currently popular tendency of distinguishing witness from 
defense, or theology from apologetics, would have been preposter- 
ous to the apostles. The two require each other and have a common 
principle and source: Christ's authority. Paul's Christ-directed and 
apologetical preaching to pagans, especially those who were philo- 
sophically inclined (as in Acts 17), then, is paradigmatic for apolo- 
gists, theologians, and preachers alike today. 

Although the report in Acts 17 is condensed, Luke has sum- 
marized the main points of Paul's message and method. 

But Is This Paul at His Best? 

Some biblical interpreters have not granted that Acts 17 is an 
exemplar for the proper encounter of Jerusalem with Athens. 
Among them there are some who doubt that Paul was genuinely 
the author of the speech recorded in this chapter, while others 
think that Paul actually delivered this speech but repudiated its 
approach when he went on to minister at Corinth. Both groups, it 
turns out, rest their opinions on insufficient grounds. 

A non-evangelical attitide toward the Scripture allows some 
scholars a supposed liberty to criticize the authenticity or accuracy 
of its contents, despite the Bible's own claim to flawless perfection 
as to the truth. In Acts 17:22 Luke identifies the speaker of the 
Areopagus address as the apostle Paul, and Luke's customary his- 
torical accuracy is by now well known among scholars of the New 
Testament. (Interestingly, classicists have been more generally 
satisfied with the Pauline authenticity of this speech than have 
modernist theologians.) Nevertheless, some writers claim to dis- 
cern a radical difference between the Paul of Areopagus and the 
Paul of the New Testament epistles. According to the critical view, 
the Areopagus focuses on world-history rather than the salvation- 
history of Paul's letters, and the speaker at Areopagus teaches that 

^F. F. Bruce, The Defence of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand 
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959), p. 18. 

all men are in God by nature, in contrast to the Pauline emphasis 
on men being in Christ by grace. ^ 

These judgments rest upon an excessively narrow perception of 
the writings and theology of Paul. The Apostle understood his au- 
dience at Athens: they would have needed to learn of God as the 
Creator and of His divine retribution against sin (even as the Jews 
knew these things from the Old Testament) before the message of 
grace could have meaning. Thus the scope of Paul's theological dis- 
cussion would necessarily be broader than that normally found in 
his epistles to Christian churches. Moreover, as we will see as this 
study progresses, there are conspicuous similarities between the 
themes of the Areopagus address and what Paul wrote elsewhere 
in his letters (especially the opening chapters of Romans). Jo- 
hannes Munch said of the sermon: "its doctrine is a reworking of 
thoughts in Romans transformed into missionary impulse."^ Final- 
ly, even given the broader perspective on history found in the ad- 
dress of Acts 17, we cannot overlook the fact that it, in perfect har- 
mony with Paul's more restricted salvation-history elsewhere, is 
bracketed by creation and final judgment, and that it finds its cli- 
max in the resurrected Christ. The speech before the Areopagus 
was a "plea for the Jewish doctrine of God, and for the specifically 
Christian emphasis on a 'Son of Man' doctrine of judgment"* (not 
an "idealized scene" presenting a message about man's [alleged] 
"dialectical relation to God").^ The Paul on Areopagus is clearly 
the same Paul who writes in the New Testament epistles. 

Did Paul suddenly shift his apologetical strategy after leaving 
Athens though? It has sometimes been thought that when Paul 
went on from Athens to Corinth and there determined to know no- 
thing among the people except Christ crucified, repudiating the ex- 
cellency of wisdom (I Cor. 2:1-2), he confessed that his philosophi- 
cal tactics in Athens had been unwise. Disillusioned with his small 
results in Athens, Paul prematurely departed the city, we are told, 

^E.g., H. Conzelmann, "The Address of Paul on the Areopagus," Stud- 
ies in Luke-Acts, ed. L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn (Nashville: Abingdon, 
1966), pp. 217ff.; A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (New 
York: H. Holt, 1931), pp. 6ff. 

^Johannes Munck, The Anchor Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, revised 
by W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & 
Co., 1967), p. 173; cf. Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Chris- 
tianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), p. 383. 

'*Kirsopp Lake and Henry J. Cadbury, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 4 
(Translation and Commentary) in The Beginnings of Christianity, Part 1, 
ed. F. J. Roakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (Grand Rapids: Baker Book 
House, 1965 [1932]), pp. 208-209. 

^Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, a Commentary (Philadel- 
phia: Westminster Press, 1971 [German, 1965]), pp. 528, 529. 

and then came to Corinth and became engrossed in the word of God 
(Acts 18:5), never to use philosophical style again.^ This outlook, 
while intriguing, consists of more speculation and jumping to con- 
clusions than hard evidence. 

In the first place, Paul is herein portrayed as a novice in Gen- 
tile evangelism at Athens, experimenting with this and that tactic 
in order to find an effective method. This does not square with the 
facts. For several years Paul had already been a successful evange- 
list in the world of pagan thought; moreover, he was not of an 
experimental mindset, and elsewhere he made plain that favorable 
results were not the barometer of faithful preaching. Besides, in 
Athens his results were not completely discouraging (17:34). And of 
a premature departure from Athens the text says nothing. After 
leaving Athens, Paul can hardly be said to have abandoned the dis- 
puting or "dialogue" for which he became known at Athens (cf. 
17:17); it continued in Corinth (18:4), Ephesus (18:19), and Troas 
(20:7) — being a daily exercise for two years in the school of Tyran- 
nus (19:8-9). It is further inaccurate to project a contrast between 
post-Athens Paul, engrossed in the word, and Athenian Paul, ab- 
sorbed in extrabiblical thought. Some Greek texts of Acts 17:24-29 
(e.g., Nestle's) list up to 22 Old Testament allusions in the margin, 
thus showing anything hut a. neglect of the Scriptural word in 
Paul's Athenian preaching! 

Mention can again be made of the enlightening harmony that 
exists between Paul's writings, say in Romans 1 and I Corinthians 
1, and his speech in Acts 17. The passages in the epistles help us 
understand the apologetical thrust of the Areopagus address, rath- 
er than clashing with it — as the subsequent study will indicate. Fi- 
nally, it is quite difficult to imagine that Paul, who had previously 
declared "Far be it from me to glory save in the cross of our Lord 
Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14), and who incisively taught the inter-sig- 
nificance of the death and resurrection of Christ (e.g., Rom. 4:25), 
would proclaim Christ as the resurrected one at Athens without ex- 
plaining that He was also the crucified one — only later (in Corinth) 
to determine not to neglect the crucifixion again. We must con- 
clude that solid evidence of a dramatic shift in Paul's apologetic 
mentality simply does not exist. 

What Luke portrays for us by way of summary in Acts 17:16- 
34 can confidently be taken as a speech of the Apostle Paul, a 
speech which reflected his inspired approach to Gentiles without 
the Bible, a speech consistent with his earlier and later teachings 
in the epistles. His approach is indeed an exemplar to us. It was 

^E.g., W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen 
(New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1896), p. 252; cf P. Vielhauer, "On the 
'Paulinism' of Acts," Studies in Luke-Acts, ed. Keck and Martyn, pp. 36-37. 


specially selected by Luke for inclusion in his summary history of 
the early apostolic church. "Apart from the brief summary of the 
discourse at Lystra . . . , the address at Athens provides our only 
evidence of the apostle's direct approach to a pagan audience."^ 
With respect to the author's composition of Acts, Martin Dibelius 
argues: "In giving only one sermon addressed to Gentiles by the 
great apostle to the Gentiles, namely the Areopagus speech in 
Athens, his primary purpose is to give an example of how the 
Christian missionary should approach cultured Gentiles."^ And in 
his lengthy study, The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation, 
Gartner correctly asks this rhetorical question: "How are we to ex- 
plain the many similarities between the Areopagus speech and the 
Epistles if the speech did not exemplify Paul's customary sermons 
to the Gentiles?"^ In the encounter of Jerusalem with Athens as 
found in Paul's Areopagus address, we thus find that it was ge- 
nuinely Paul who was speaking, and that Paul was at his best. 
Scripture would have us, then, strive to emulate his method. 

Intellectual Backgrounds 

Before looking at Acts 17 itself, a short historical and philo- 
sophical background for the speaker of, and listeners to, the Areo- 
pagus address would be helpful. 

Paul was a citizen of Tarsus, which was not an obscure or in- 
significant city (Acts 21:39). It was the leading city of Cilicia and 
famed as a city of learning. In addition to general education. Tar- 
sus was noted for its schools devoted to rhetoric and philosophy. 
Some of its philosophers gained significant reputations, especially 
the Stoic leaders Zeno of Tarsus (who cast doubt on the idea of a 
universal conflagration), Antipater of Tarsus (who addressed a fa- 
mous argument against Carneade's scepticism), Heraclides of Tar- 
sus (who abandoned the view that "all mistakes are equal"), and 
Athenodorus the Stoic (who was a teacher of Augustus); Nestor the 
Academic followed Athenodorus, evidencing thereby the variety of 
philosophic perspectives in Tarsus. The city surely exercised an 

■^Ned B. Stonehouse, Paul Before the Areopagus and Other New Testa- 
ment Studies (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 9-10. 

^Martin Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (New York: 
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956), p. 79. 

^Bertil Gartner, The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation (Up- 
psala: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1955), p. 52. 

academic influence on Paul, an influence which would have been 
broadened later in Paul's life when he came into contact with its 
culture again for some eight years or so, three years following his 
conversion. In his early years Paul was also educated by Gamaliel 
in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3), where he excelled as a student (Gal. 
1:14). His course of study would have included critical courses in 
Greek culture and philosophy (as evidence from the Talmud indi- 
cates). When we add to this the extensive knowledge of Greek liter- 
ature and culture which is reflected in his letters, it is manifest 
that Paul was neither naive nor obscurantist when it came to a 
knowledge of philosophy and Gentile thought. Given his back- 
ground, training, and expertise in Scriptural theology, Paul was 
the ideal representative for the classic confrontation of Jerusalem 
with Athens. 

Athens, the philosophical center of the ancient world, was re- 
nowned for its four major schools: The Academy (founded ca. 287 
B.C.) of Plato, the Lyceum (335 B.C.) of Aristotle, the Garden (306 
B.C.) of Epicurus, and the painted Porch 300 B.C.) of Zeno. 

The outlook of the Academy was radically altered by Arcesi- 
laus and Carneades in the third and second centuries before Christ; 
respectively, they moved the school into utter scepticism and then 
probabilism. Carneades relegated the notion of god to impenetrable 
mystery. When Antiochus of Ascalon claimed to restore the "old 
Academy" in the first century B.C., in actuality he introduced a 
syncretistic dogmatism which viewed Stoicism as the true succes- 
sor to Plato. The Platonic tradition is remembered for the view that 
man's soul is imprisoned in the body; at death man is healed, as his 
soul is released from its tomb. 

This antimaterialist emphasis was somewhat challenged by 
Aristotle's Peripatetic school, which denied the possibility of im- 
mortality and invested much time in specialized empirical study 
and classification of the departments of knowledge. The influence 
of this school had greatly weakened by the time of the New Testa- 
ment. However, its materialistic proclivity was paralleled in the 
atomism of Epicureanism. 

Democritus had earlier taught that the universe consisted of 
eternal atoms of matter, ever falling through space; the changing 
of combinations and configurations of these falling atoms was ex- 
plained by reference to chance (an irrational "swerve" in the fall of 
certain atoms). This metaphysic, in combination with an epistemol- 
ogy which maintained that all knowledge stemmed from sense per- 
ception, led the Epicurean followers of atomism to believe that a 
naturalistic explanation of all events could and should be given. By 
their doctrine of self-explanatory naturalism the Epicureans de- 
nied immortality thereby declaring that there was no need to fear 


death. Moreover, whatever gods there may be would make no dif- 
ference to men and their affairs. Epicurus taught that long-lasting 
pleasure was the goal of human behavior and life. Since no after- 
life was expected (at death a person's atoms disperse into infinite 
space), human desires should focus on this life alone. And in this 
life the only genuine long-term pleasure was that of tranquili- 
ty — being freed from disturbing passions, pains, or fears. To gain 
such tranquility one must become insulated from disturbances in 
his life (e.g., interpersonal strife, disease), concentrating on simple 
pleasures (e.g., a modicum of cheese and wine, conversations with 
friends) and achieving serenity through the belief that gods never 
intervene in the world to punish disobedient behavior. Indeed, 
whatever celestial beings there are, they were taken merely as 
dream-like images who — in deistic fashion — care nothing about the 
lives of men. Thus Philodemus wrote: "There is nothing to fear in 
god/ There is nothing to be alarmed at in death." The Epicureans 
were, as is evident here, antagonistic to theology. Epicurus had 
taught them to appeal to right reason against superstition. Accord- 
ingly Lucretius denied any need for recourse to "unknown gods" in 
order to explain the plague at Athens or its alleviation. 

Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, agreed that sensation 
was the sole origin of knowledge, and that the mind of man was a 
tabula rasa at birth. However, against Epicurean materialism, he 
taught that reason governs matter in both man and the world, thus 
making man a microcosm of the universal macrocosm. Man was 
viewed as integrated with nature — man's reason seen as being of a 
piece with the ever-living fire which permeates the world order. 
This was the "Logos" for the Stoics. As a kind of refined matter 
that actively permeates all things and determines what will hap- 
pen, the Logos was the unchanging rational plan of historical 
change. Nature's highest expression, then, was reason or the 
world-soul, being personified eventually as god. In addition to this 
pantheistic thrust, Zeno expounded a cyclic view of history (moving 
through conflagration-regeneration sequences) which precluded in- 
dividual immortality. Being subordinated to immanent forces (the 
divine world-soul and historical determinism) the individual was 
exhorted to "live in harmony with nature," not concerning himself 
with matters which were beyond his control. If life was to be con- 
ducted "conformably to nature," and reason was nature's basic ex- 
pression, then virtue for man was to live in harmony with reason. 
The rational element in man was to be superior to the emotional. 
Epictetus wrote that men cannot control events, but they can con- 
trol their attitude toward events. So everything outside reason, 
whether it be pleasure, pain, or even death, was to be viewed as in- 
different. Stoicism gave rise to a serious attitude, resignation in 


suffering, stern individualism, and social self-sufficiency. In turn, 
these achievements produced pride. Aratus and Cleanthes, two 
pantheistic Stoics of the mid-third century B.C., viewed Zeus as a 
personification of the unavoidable fate which governs man's life. 
Later Stoics either abandoned or modified much of Zeno's teaching. 
For instance, a century after Cleanthes, Panaetius essentially be- 
came a humanist who saw theology as idle chatter; and a century 
after Panaetius another Stoic leader, Posidonius (Cicero's instruc- 
tor), opted for a Platonic view of the soul, the eternality of the 
world (contrary to the idea of conflagration), and the dynamic con- 
tinuity of nature under fate. The famous Roman Stoic, Seneca, was 
a contemporary of Paul. 

A final line of thinking which was influential in Athens in 
Paul's day (mid-first century A.D.) was that of the neopythago- 
reans. In the late sixth century B.C. Pythagoras had taught a 
mathematical basis for the cosmos, the transmigration of souls, 
and a regime of purity. Mixed with the thought of Plato, the Peri- 
patetics, and Stoicism, his thought reappeared in the first century 
B.C. with the neopythagoreans, who emphasized an exoteric and 
mystical theology which took a keen interest in numbers and the 
stars. The neophythagoreans influenced the Essene community as 
well as Philo — Paul's other philosophical contemporary. ^° 

In Paul's day Athenian intellectual life had come to be charac- 
terized by turmoil and uncertainty. Scepticism had made heavy in- 
roads, which in turn fostered various reactions — notably: interac- 
tion between the major schools of thought, widespread eclecticism, 
nostalgic interest in the past founders of the schools, religious mys- 
ticism, and resignation to hedonism. Men were turning every 
which way in search for the truth and for security. On the other 
hand, over four hundred years of philosophical dispute with its con- 
flicts, repetitions, and inadequacies had left many Athenians bored 
and thirsty for novel schemes of thought. Thus one can understand 
Luke's accurate and insightful aside to the reader in Acts 17:21, 
"Now ail the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent 
time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing." 
The curiosity of the Athenians was indeed proverbial. Earlier, 
Demosthenes had reproached the Athenians for being consumed 
with a craving for "fresh news". The Greek historian, Thucydides, 
tells us that Cleon once declared, "You are the best people for being 
deceived by something new which is said." With this background 
let us now examine Paul's apologetic to secular intellectuals. 

i"For further details on the philosophical schools of the Hellenic and 
Roman periods the reader can consult with profit the standard historical 
studies of Guthrie, Brehier, and Copleston. 


Paul's Encounter with the Philosophers 

Acts 17:16-21 (American Standard Version) 

(16) Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was 
provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols. 

(17) So he reasoned in the synogogue with the Jews and the de- 
vout persons, and in the marketplace every day with them that 
met him. 

(18) And certain also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers en- 
countered him. And some said, What would this babbler say? oth- 
ers. He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he 
preached Jesus and the resurrection. 

(19) And they took hold of him, and brought him unto the Areopa- 
gus, saying. May we know what this new teaching is, which is 
spoken by thee? 

(20) For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we 
would know therefore what these things mean. 

(21) (Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there 
spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some 
new thing.) 

In the early 50's of the first century Paul was on something of 
a "missionary furlough," waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy. 
(Luke's rehearsal of this situation, Acts 17:14-16, is confirmed by 
Paul's own account in I Thes. 3:1-2). However, his brief relief was 
broken when he became internally provoked at the idolatry of the 
city, being reminded anew of the perversity of the unbeliever who 
suppresses God's clear truth and worships the creature rather than 
the Creator (Acts 17:16; cf. Rom. 1:25). Paul's love for God and His 
standards meant he had a corresponding hatred for that which was 
offensive to the Lord. The idolatry of Athens produced a strong and 
sharp emotional disturbance within him, one of exasperated indig- 
nation. The Greek word for 'provoked' is the same as that used in 
the Greek Old Testament for God's anger at Israel's idolatry (e.g., 
at Sinai). The Mosaic law's prohibition against idolatry was ob- 
viously binding outside of Old Testament Israel, judging from 
Paul's attitude toward the idolatrous society of Athens. Paul was 
thinking God's thoughts after Him, and strong emotion was gener- 
ated by the fact that this "city full of idols" was "without excuse" 
for its rebellion (Rom. 1:20) — as also had been Israel of old. 

The profligate Roman satirist, Petronius, once said that it was 
easier to find a god in Athens than a man; the city simply teemed 
with idols. Visitors to Athens and writers (e.g., Sophocles, Livy, 
Pausanius, Strabo, Josephus) frequently remarked upon the abun- 
dance of religious statues in Athens. According to one, Athens had 
more idols than all of the remainder of Greece combined. There 
was the altar of Eumenides (dark goddesses who avenge murder) 


and the hermes (statues with phallic attributes, standing at every 
entrance to the city as protective talismans). There was the altar of 
the Twelve Gods, the Temple of Ares (or "Mars," god of war), the 
Temple of Apollo Patroos. Paul saw the image of Neptune on horse- 
back, the sanctuary of Bacchus, the forty foot high statue of Athe- 
na, the mother goddess of the city. Sculptured forms of the Muses 
and the gods of Greek mythology presented themselves everywhere 
around Paul.^^ What is today taken by tourists as a fertile field of 
aesthetic appreciation — the artifacts left from the ancient Athen- 
ian worship of pagan deities — represented to Paul not art but des- 
picable and crude religion. Religious loyalty and moral considera- 
tions precluded artistic compliments. These idols were not "merely 
an academic question" to Paul. They provoked him. As Paul gazed 
upon the Doric temple of the patron goddess Athena, the Parthe- 
non, standing atop the Acropolis, and as he scrutinized the Temple 
of Mars on the Areopagus, he was not only struck with the inal- 
ienable religious nature of man (v. 22), but also outraged at how 
fallen man exchanges the glory of the incorruptible God for idols 
(Rom. 1:23). 

Thus Paul could not keep silent. He began daily to reason with 
the Jews in the synagogue, and with anybody who would hear him 
in the agora, at the bottom of the Acropolis, the center of Athenian 
life and business (where years before, Socrates had met men with 
whom to discuss philosophical questions) (v. 17). Paul's evangelistic 
method was always suited to the local conditions — and portrayed 
with historical accuracy by Luke. In Ephesus Paul taught in the 
"school of Tyrannus," but in Athens his direct approach to the hea- 
then was made in the marketplace. Paul had already approached 
the unbelieving Jews and God-fearing Gentiles at the synagogue in 
Athens. Now he entered the marketplace of ideas to "reason with" 
those who met him there. The Greek word for Paul's activity re- 
calls the "dialogues" of Plato wherein Socrates discusses issues of 
philosophical importance; it is the same word used by Plutarch for 
the teaching methods of a peripatetic philosopher. Paul did not 
simply announce his viewpoint; he discussed it openly and gave it a 
reasonable defense. He aimed to educate his audience, not to make 
common religious cause with their sinful ignorance. 

Paul was well aware of the philosophical climate of his day. 
Accordingly he did not attempt to use premises agreed upon with 
the philosophers, and then pursue a "neutral" method of argumen- 
tation to move them from the circle of their beliefs into the circle of 
his own convictions. When he disputed with the philosophers they 
did not find any grounds for agreement with Paul at any level of 

^^Cf Oscar Broneer, "Athens: City of Idol Worship," The Biblical Ar- 
chaeologist 21 (February, 1958):4-6. 


their conversations. Rather, they utterly disdained him as a "seed- 
picker," a slang term (originally applied to gutter-sparrows) for a 
peddler of second-hand bits of pseudo-philosophy — an intellectual 
scavenger (v. 18). The word of the cross was to them foolish (I Cor. 
1:18), and in their pseudo-wisdom they knew not God (I Cor. 1:20- 
21). Hence Paul would not consent to use their verbal "wisdom" in 
his apologetic, lest the cross of Christ be made void (I Cor. 1:17). 

Paul rejected the assumptions of the philosophers in order that 
he might educate them in the truth of God, He did not attempt to 
find common beliefs which would serve as starting points for an 
uncommitted search for "whatever gods there may be." His hearers 
certainly did not recognize commonness with Paul's reasoning; they 
could not discern an echo of their own thinking in Paul's argumen- 
tation. Instead, they viewed Paul as bringing strange, new teaching 
to them (vv. 18-10). They apparently viewed Paul as proclaiming a 
new divine couple: "Jesus" (a masculine form that sounds like the 
greek iasis) and "Resurrection" (a feminine form), being the per- 
sonified powers of "healing" and "restoration." These "strange dei- 
ties" amounted to "new teaching" in the eyes of the Athenians. Ac- 
cusing Paul of being a propogandist for new deities was an echo of 
the nearly identical charge brought against Socrates four and a 
half centuries earlier. ^^ It surely turned out to be a more menacing 
accusation than the name "seed-picker." As introducing foreign 
gods, Paul could not simply be disdained; he was also a threat to 
Athenian wellbeing. And that is precisely why Paul ended up be- 
fore the Areopagus council. 

In the marketplace Paul had apologetically proclaimed the 
fundamental, apostolic kerygma which centered on Jesus and the 
resurrection (Acts 17:18; cf. Acts 4:2). This summed up God's deci- 
sive saving work in history for His people: Christ had been deliv- 
ered up for their sins, but God raised Him for their justification 
(Rom. 4:25) and thereby constituted Him the Son of God with power 
(i.e. exalted Lord; Rom. 1:4). As mentioned previously, Paul's ap- 
proach to those who were without the Scriptures was to challenge 
them to turn from their idolatry and serve the living God, whose 
resurrected Son would ^iwaWy judge the world (cf. I Thes. 1:9-10). 
This was the burden of Paul's message at Athens. 

Paul was determined to know nothing among men save Jesus 
Christ and Him crucified .... In His resurrection through the 
power of the Creator there stood before men the clearest evidence 

i^For a comparison of the apologetical methods of Socrates and Paul 
see G. L. Bahnsen, "Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apol- 
ogetics," in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, ed. Gary North (Valleci- 
to, CA.: Ross House Books, 1976). 


that could be given that they who would still continue to serve 
and worship the creature would at last be condemned by the Crea- 
tor then become their Judge (Acts 17:31) .... No one can be con- 
fronted with the fact of Christ and of His resurrection and fail to 
have his own conscience tell him that he is face to face with his 
Judge. ^3 

It was specifically the aspect of Christ's resurrection in Paul's gos- 
pel that elicited a challenge from the philosophers. At this they 
hauled him before the Areopagus Council for an explanation and 
reasoned defense of the hope that was in him (cf. I Peter 1:3, 3:15). 

Luke tells us that Paul was "brought before the Areopagus" 
(v.l9). The Areios pagos literally means "the hill of Ares" (or 
"Mar's hill"); however, his referent is not likely a geographical fea- 
ture in the local surrounding of the agora. The Council of the Areo- 
pagus was a venerable commission of the ex-magistrates which 
took its name from the hill where it originally convened. In popu- 
lar parlance its title was shortened simply to "the Areopagus," and 
in the first century it had transferred its location to the Stoa Basi- 
leios (or "Royal Portico") in the city marketplace — where the Pla- 
tonic dialogues tell us that Euthyphro went to try his father for im- 
piety and where Socrates had been tried for corrupting the youth 
with foreign deities. Apparently the Council convened on Mar's hill 
in Paul's day only for trying cases of homicide. That Paul "stood in 
the midst of the Areopagus" (v. 22) and "went out from their midst" 
(v. 33) is much easier understood in terms of his appearance before 
the Council than his standing on the hill (cf. Acts 4:7).^* 

The Council was a small but powerful body (probably about 
thirty members) whose membership was taken from those who had 
formerly held offices in Athens which (due to the expenses in- 
volved) were open only to aristocratic Athenians. This Council was 
presently the dominating factor in Athenian politics, and it had a 
reputation far and wide. Cicero wrote that the Areopagus assembly 
governed the Athenian affairs of state. They exercised jurisdiction 
over matters of religion and morals, taking concern for teachers 
and public lecturers in Athens (and thus Cicero once induced the 
Areopagus to invite a peripatetic philosopher to lecture in Athens). 
A dispute exists over the question of whether the Areopagus had 
an educational subcommittee before which Paul likely would have 
appeared. ^'^ But one way or another, the Council would have found 
it necessary to keep order and exercise some control over lecturers 

^Cornelius Van Til, Paul at Athens (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: L. J. 
Grotenhuis, n.d.), pp. 2,3. 

'''Contrary to Haenchen, Acts Commentary, pp. 518-519, 520. 

'■''For the affirmative position see Gartner, Areopagus Speech, pp. 64- 
65; for the negative see Haenchen, Acts Commentary, p. 519. 


in the agora. Since Paul was creating something of a disturbance, 
he was "brought before the Areopagus" for an explanation (even if 
not for a specific examination toward the issuance of a teaching li- 
cense.) The mention of "the Areopagus" is one of many indicators of 
Luke's accuracy as a historian. "According to Acts, therefore, just 
as Paul is brought before the strategoi at Philippi, the politarchai 
at Thessalonica, the anthupatos at Corinth, so at Athens he faces 
the Areopagus. The local name for the supreme authority is in each 
case different and accurate. "^^ 

Paul appeared before the Areopagus Council for a reason that 
probably lies somewhere between that of merely supplying request- 
ed information and that of answering to formal charges. After indi- 
cating the questions and requests addressed to Paul before the 
Areopagus, Luke seems to offer the motivation for this line of in- 
terrogation in verse 21 — the proverbial curiosity of the Athenians. 
And yet the language used when Luke says in verse 19 that "they 
took hold of him" is more often than not in Acts used in the sense of 
arresting someone (cf. 16:19; 18:17; 21:30 — although not always, as 
in 9:27, 23:19). We must remember that Luke wrote the book of 
Acts while Paul had been awaiting trial in Rome for two years 
(Acts 28:30-31). His hope regarding the Roman verdict was surely 
given expression in the closing words of his book — that Paul con- 
tinued to preach Christ, "none forbidding him." An important 
theme pursued by Luke in the book of Acts is that Paul was contin- 
ually appearing before a court, but never with a guilty verdict 
against him. Quite likely, in Acts 17 Paul is portrayed by Luke as 
again appearing before a court without sentencing. Had there been 
the legal formality of charges against Paul, it is inconceivable that 
Luke would not have mentioned them or the formal verdict at the 
end of the trial. Therefore, Paul's appearance before the Areopagus 
Council is best understood as an informal exploratory hearing for 
the purpose of determining whether formal charges ought to be for- 
mulated and pressed against him. Eventually none were. 

In the same city which had tried Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and 
Socrates for introducing "new deities," Paul was under examina- 
tion for setting forth "strange gods" (vv. 18-20). The kind of apolo- 
getic for the resurrection which he presented is a paradigm for all 
Christian apologists. It will soon be apparent that he recognized 
that the fact of the resurrection needed to be accepted and inter- 
preted in a wider philosophical context, and that the unregener- 
ate's system of thought had to be placed in antithetic contrast with 
that of the Christian. Although the philosophers had used disdain- 
ful name-calling while considering Paul in the marketplace (v. 18), 

i^Lake and Cadbury, Acts of the Apostles, p. 213. 


verses 19-20 show them expressing themselves in more refined lan- 
guage before the Council. They politely requested clarification of a 
message which had been apparently incomprehensible to them. 
They asked to be made acquainted with Paul's strange new teach- 
ing and to have its meaning explained. Given their philosophical 
presuppositions and mindset, Paul's teaching could not even be in- 
tegrated sufficiently into their thinking to be understood. This in 
itself reveals the underlying fact that a conceptual paradigm clash 
had been taking place between them and Paul. Given their own 
worldviews, the philosophers did not think that Paul's outlook 
made sense. As Paul stood in the midst of the prestigious Council of 
the Areopagus, with a large audience gathered around from the 
marketplace, he set himself for a defense of his faith. Let us turn to 
examine his address itself. 

Paul's Presuppositional Procedure 

Acts 17:22-31 (American Standard Version) 

(22) And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, and said. 
Ye men of Athens, in all things I perceive that ye are very re- 
ligious (margin: somewhat superstitious). 

(23) For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your wor- 
ship, I found also an altar with this inscription, TO AN UN- 
KNOWN GOD. What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set 
forth unto you. 

(24) The God that made the world and all things therein, he, be- 
ing Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with 

(25) neither is he served by men's hands, as though he needed 
anything, seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all 

(26) and he made of one every nation of men to dwell on the face 
of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the 
bounds of their habitation; 

(27) that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him 
and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: 

(28) for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain 
even even of your own poets have said. 

For we are also his offspring. 

(29) Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that 
the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art 
and device of man. 

(30) The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he 
commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent: 

(31) inasmuch as he hath appointed a day in which he will judge 
the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; 
whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath 
raised him from the dead. 


It must first be noted that Paul's manner of addressing his au- 
dience was respectful and gentle. The boldness of his apologetic did 
not become arrogance. Paul "stood" in the midst of the Council, 
which would have been the customary attitude of an orator. And he 
began his address formally, with a polite manner of expression: 
"You men of Athens." The magna carta of Christian apologetics, I 
Peter 3:15, reminds us that when we offer a reasoned defense of the 
hope within us, we must do so "with meekness and respect." Ridi- 
cule, anger, sarcasm, and name-calling are inappropriate weapons 
of apologetical defense. A Spirit-filled apologist will evidence the 
fruits of the Spirit in his approach to others. 

Next we see that Paul's approach was to speak in terms of ba- 
sic philosophical perspectives. The Athenians had specifically asked 
about the resurrection, but we have no hint that Paul replied by 
examining various alternative theories (e.g., Jesus merely swooned 
on the cross, the disciples stole the body, etc.) and then by counter- 
ing them with various evidences (e.g., a weak victim of crucifixion 
could not have moved the stone; liars do not become martyrs; etc.) 
in order to conclude that "very probably" Jesus arose. No, nothing 
of the sort appears here. Instead, Paul laid the presuppositional 
groundwork for accepting the authoritative word from God, which 
was the source and context of the good news about Christ's resur- 
rection. Van Til comments: 

It takes the fact of the resurrection to see its proper framework 
and it takes the framework to see the fact of the resurrection; the 
two are accepted on the authority of Scripture alone and by the 
regenerating work of the Spirit. i'^ 

Without the proper theological context, the resurrection would 
simply be a monstrosity or freak of nature, a surd resuscitation of a 
corpse. Such an interpretation would be the best that the Athenian 
philosophers could make of the fact. However, given the monism, 
or determinism, or materialism, or the philosophy of history enter- 
tained by the philosophers in Athens, they could intellectually find 
sufficient grounds, if they wished, for disputing even the fact of the 
resurrection. It would have been futile for Paul to argue about the 
facts, then, without challenging the unbelievers' philosophy of 

Verses 24-31 of Acts 17 indicate Paul's recognition • that be- 
tween his hearers and himself two complete systems of thought 
were in conflict. Any alleged fact or particular evidence which was 
introduced into the discussion would be variously seen in the light 

iWan Til, Paul at Athens, p. 14. 

i^Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley, New 
Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), p. 293. 


of the differing systems of thought. Consequently, the Apostle's 
apologetic had to be suited to a philosophical critique of the unbe- 
liever's perspective and a philosophical defense of the believer's po- 
sition. He was called upon to conduct his apologetic with respect to 
worldviews which were in collision. The Athenians had to be chal- 
lenged, not simply to add a bit more information (say, about a his- 
torical event) to their previous thinking, but to renounce their pre- 
vious thoughts and undergo a thorough change of mind. They 
needed to be converted in their total outlook on life, man, the 
world, and God. Hence Paul reasoned with them in a presupposi- 
tional fashion. 

The basic contours of a biblically guided, presuppositional ap- 
proach to apologetical reasoning can be sketched from scriptures 
outside of Acts 17. Such a summary will give us sensitivity and in- 
sight into Paul's argumentation before the Areopagus. 

(1) Paul understood that the unbeliever's mindset and philoso- 
phy would be systemically contrary to that of the believer — that 
the two represent in principle a clash of total attitude and basic pre- 
suppositions. He taught in Ephesians 4:17-24 that the Gentiles 
"walk in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their under- 
standing" because of their "ignorance and hardened hearts," while 
a completely different epistemic condition characterizes the Chris- 
tian, one who has been "renewed in the spirit of your mind" and 
has "learned Christ" (for "the truth is in Jesus"). The "wisdom of 
the world" evaluates God's wisdom as foolishness, while the believ- 
er understands that worldly wisdom "has been made foolish" (I 
Cor. 1:17-25; 3:18-20). The basic commitments of the believer and 
unbeliever are fundamentally opposed to each other. 

(2) Paul further understood that the basic commitments of the 
unbeliever produced only ignorance and foolishness, allowing an 
effective internal critique of his hostile worldview. The ignorance 
of the non-Christian's presuppositions should be exposed. Thus Paul 
refers to thought which opposes the faith as "vain babblings of 
knowledge falsely so called" (I Tim. 6:20), and he insists that the 
wise disputers of this age have been made foolish and put to shame 
by those called "foolish" (I Cor. 1:20,27). Unbelievers become "vain 
in their reasonings"; "professing themselves to be wise,they be- 
came fools" (Rom. 1:21,22). 

(3) By contrast, the Christian takes revelational authority as 
his starting point and controlling factor in all reasoning. In Colos- 
sians 2:3 Paul explains that "all the treasures of wisdom and 
knowledge" are deposited in Christ — in which case we must be on 
the alert against philosophy which is "not after Christ," lest it rob 
us of this epistemic treasure (v. 8). The Old Testament proverb had 
put it this way: "The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of know- 


ledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Proverbs 1:7). Ac- 
cordingly, if the apologist is going to cast down "reasonings and ev- 
ery high thing exalted against the knowledge of God" he must first 
bring "every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 
Cor. 10:5), making Christ pre-eminent in all things (Col. 1:18). Up- 
on the platform of God's revealed truth, the believer can authorita- 
tively declare the riches of knowledge unto believers. 

(4) Paul's writings also establish that, because all men have a 
clear knowledge of God from general revelation, the unbeliever's 
suppression of the truth results in culpable ignorance. Men have a 
natural and inescapable knowledge of God, for He has made it 
manifest unto them, making his divine nature perceived through 
the created order, so that all men are "without excuse" (Rom. 1:19- 
20). This knowledge is "suppressed in unrighteousness" (v. 18), 
placing men under the wrath of God, for "knowing God, they glori- 
fied Him not as God" (v. 21). The ignorance which characterizes 
unbelieving thought is something for which the unbeliever is mor- 
ally responsible. 

(5) Given the preceding conditions, the appropriate thing for 
the apologist to do is to set his world view with its scriptural pre- 
suppositions and authority in antithetical contrast to the world- 
view(s) of the unbeliever, explaining that in principle the latter de- 
stroys the possibility of knowledge (that is, doing an internal cri- 
tique of the system to demonstrate its foolishness and ignorance 
(and indicating how the biblical perspective alone accounts for the 
knowledge which the unbeliever sinfully uses. By placing the two 
perspectives in contrast and showing "the impossibility of the con- 
trary" to the Christian outlook, the apologist seeks to expose the 
unbeliever's suppression of his knowledge of God and thereby call 
him to repentance, a change in his mindset and convictions. Rea- 
soning in this presuppositional manner — refusing to become intel- 
lectually neutral and to argue on the unbeliever's autonomous 
grounds — prevents having our "minds corrupted from the simplici- 
ty and purity that is toward Christ" and counteracts the beguiling 
philosophy used by the serpent to ensnare Eve (2 Cor. 11:3). In the 
face of the fool's challenges to the Christian faith, Paul would have 
believers meekly "correct those who are opposing themselves" 
— setting biblical instruction over against the self-vitiating per- 
spective of unbelief — and showing the need for "repentance unto 
the knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:25). ^^ 

i^For further discussion of the presuppositional method see G. L. 
Bahnsen, "A Biblical Introduction to Apologetics" (syllabus distributed by 
the Fairfax Christian Bookstore, 11121 Pope's Head Road, Fairfax, VA 


As we look further now at Paul's address before the Areopagus 
philosophers, we will find that his line of thought incorporated the 
preceding elements of biblically presuppositional reasoning. He 
pursued a pattern of argument which was completely congruous 
with his other relevant New Testament teachings. They virtually 
dictated his method to him. 

The Unbeliever's Ignorance 

As Paul began his Areopagus apologetic, he began by drawing 
attention to the nature of man as inherently a religious being (v. 
22; cf. Rom. 1:19; 2:15). The term used to describe the Athenians in 
verse 22 (literally "fearers of the supernatural spirits") is some- 
times translated "very religious" and sometimes "somewhat super- 
stitious." There is no satisfactory English equivalent. "Very reli- 
gious" is too complimentary; Paul was not prone to flattery, and ac- 
cording to Lucian, it was forbidden to use compliments before the 
Areopagus in an effort to gain its goodwill. "Somewhat supersti- 
tious" is perhaps a bit too critical in thrust. Although the term 
could sometimes be used among pagans as a compliment, it usually 
denoted an excess of strange piety. Accordingly, in Acts 25:19 Fes- 
tus refers to Judaism, using this term as a mild reproach for its re- 
ligiosity. It is not beyond possibility that Paul cleverly chose this 
term precisely for the sake of its ambiguity. His readers would 
wonder whether the good or bad sense was being stressed by Paul, 
and Paul would be striking a double blow: men cannot eradicate a 
religious impulse within themselves (as the Athenians demon- 
strate), and yet this good impulse has been degraded by rebellion 
against the living and true God (as the Athenians also demon- 
strate). Although men do not acknowledge it, they are aware of 
their relation and accountability to the living and true God who 
created them. But rather than come to terms with Him and His 
wrath against their sin (cf. Rom. 1:18), they pervert the truth. And 
in this they become ignorant and foolish (Rom. 1:21-22). 

Thus Paul could present his point by making an illustration of 
the altar dedicated "To an Unknown God." Paul testified that as he 
"observed" the Athenian "objects of worship" he found an altar 
with an appropriate inscription. The verb used of Paul's activity 
does not connote a mere looking at things, but a systematic inspec- 
tion and purposeful scrutiny (the English term 'theorize' is cog- 
nate). Among their "objects of religious devotion" (language refer- 
ring to idol worship without any approbation) Paul finally found 


one which contained "a text for what he had to say".^° Building up- 
on the admission of the Athenians themselves, Paul could easily 
indict them for the ignorance of their worship — that is, any wor- 
ship which is contrary to the word of God (cf. John 4:22). The 
Athenians had brought Paul before the Areopagus with a desire to 
"know" what they were missing in religious philosophy (vv. 19,20), 
and Paul immediately points out that heretofore their worship was 
admittedly of the "unknown" (v. 23). Paul did not attempt to sup- 
plement or build upon a common foundation of natural theology 
with the Greek philosophers here. He began, rather, with their 
own expression of theological inadequacy and defectiveness. He un- 
derscored their ignorance and proceeded from that significant epis- 
temological point. 

The presence of altars "to unknown gods" in Athens was at- 
tested by writers such as Pausanias and Philostratus. According to 
Diogenes Laertius, such altars were erected to an anonymous 
source of blessing. For instance, once (ca. 550 B.C.), when a plague 
afflicted Athens without warning and could not be mitigated by 
medicine or sacrifice, Epimenides counseled the Athenians to set 
white and black sheep loose on the Areopagus, and then to erect al- 
tars wherever the sheep came to rest. Not knowing the specific 
source of the plague's elimination, the Athenians built various al- 
tars to unknown gods. This sort of thing was apparently common in 
the ancient world. The 1910 excavation at Pergamum unearthed 
evidence that a torchbearer who felt under some obligation to gods 
whose names were unknown to him expressed his gratitude by 
erecting an anonymous altar for them. Deissmann's conclusion 
bears repeating: 

In Greek antiquity cases were not altogether rare in which "anon- 
ymous" altars "to unknown gods" or "to the god whom it may con- 
cern" were erected when people were convinced, for example after 
experiencing some deliverance, that a deity had been gracious to 
them, but were not certain of the deity's name.^^ 

The Athenians had a number of such altars on Mar's hill alone. 
This was testimony to the Athenian conviction that they were 
lorded over by mysterious, unknown forces. 

Yet these altars were also evidence that they assumed enough 
knowledge of these forces to worship them, and worship them in a 
particular manner. There was thus an element of subtle, internal 
critique in Paul's mention of the Athenian worship of that which 

2°F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, in the New Interna- 
tional Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerd- 
mans, 1955), p. 356. 

^^Adolph Deissmann, Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History 
(London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1926), pp. 287-291. 


they acknowledged as unknown (v. 23). Moreover, Paul was noting 
the basic schizophrenia in unbelieving thought when he described 
in the Athenians both an awareness of God (v. 22) and an ignor- 
ance of God (v. 23). The same condition is expounded in Romans 
1:18-25. Berkouwer notes, "There is full agreement between Paul's 
characterization of heathendom as ignorant of God and his speech 
on the Areopagus. Ever with Paul, the call to faith is a matter of 
radical conversion from ignorance of God."^^ Knowing God, the un- 
regenerate nevertheless suppresses the truth and follows a lie in- 
stead, thereby gaining a darkened mind. Commenting on our pas- 
sage in Acts 17, Munck said: 

What follows reveals that God was unknown only because the 
Athenians had not wanted to know him. So Paul was not intro- 
ducing foreign gods, but God who was both known, as this altar 
shows, and yet unknown. ^3 

The unbeliever is fully responsible for his mental state, and this is 
a state of culpable ignorance. That explains why Paul issued a call 
for repentance to the Athenians (v. 30); their ignorant mindset was 

The Authority of Revelational Knowledge «> 

Having alluded to an altar to an unknown god, Paul said, 
"That which you worship, acknowledging openly your ignorance, / 
proclaim unto you." There are two crucial elements of his apologet- 
ic approach to be discerned here. Paul started with an emphasis 
upon his hearers' ignorance and from there went on to declare with 
authority the truth of God. Their ignorance was made to stand over 
against his unique authority and ability to expound the truth. Paul 
set forth Christianity as alone reasonable and true, and his ulti- 
mate starting point was the authority of Christ's revelation. It was 
not uncommon for Paul to stress that the Gentiles were ignorant, 
knowing not God. (e.g., I Cor. 1:20; Gal. 4:8; Eph. 4:18; I Thes. 4:5; 
2 Thes. 1:8). In diametric contrast to them was the believer who 
possessed a knowledge of God (e.g.. Gal. 4:9; Eph. 4:20). This an- 
tithesis was fundamental to Paul's thought, and it was clearly 
elaborated at Athens. 

The Greek word for 'proclaim' ('set forth') in verse 23 refers to 
a solemn declaration which is made with authority. For instance, 
in the Greek papyri it is used for an announcement of the appoint- 

22G. C. Berkouwer, General Revelation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerd- 
mans, 1955), p. 145. 

23Munck, Anchor Bible: Acts, p. 171. 


ment of one's legal representative. 2"* It might seem that such an au- 
thoritative declaration by Paul would be appropriate only when he 
dealt with Jews who already accepted the scriptures; however, 
whether dealing with Jews or secular philosophers, Paul's episte- 
mological platform remained the same, so that even in Athens he 
"proclaimed" the word of God. The verb is frequently used in Acts 
and the Pauline epistles for the apostolic proclamation of the gos- 
pel, which had direct divine authority (e.g., Acts 3:18; I Cor. 9:14; 
cf. Gal. 1:11-12). Therefore, we see that Paul, although ridiculed as 
a philosophical charlatan, presumed unique authority to provide 
the Athenian philosophers with that knowledge which they lacked 
about God. This was far from stressing common ideas and beliefs. 
How offensive the Pauline antithesis between their ignorance and 
his God-given authority must have been to them! 

They were sure that such a God as Paul preached did not and 
could not exist. They were therefore sure that Paul could not "de- 
clare" this God to them. No one could know such a God as Paul 
beheved in.^^ 

Paul aimed to show his audience that their ignorance would no 
longer be tolerated; instead, God commanded all men to undergo a 
radical change of mind (v. 30). From beginning to end the unbeliev- 
er's ignorance was stressed in Paul's apologetic, being set over 
against the revelational knowledge of God. 

Culpable Suppression of the Truth 

Paul reasoned on the basis of antithetical presuppositions, a 
different starting point and authority. He also stressed the culpa- 
bility of his hearers for that ignorance which resulted from their 
unbelief. Natural revelation certainly played a part in his convic- 
ting them of this truth. However, there is no hint in Paul's words 
that this revelation had been handled properly or that it estab- 
lished a common interpretation between the believer and unbeliev- 
er. Rather, Paul's references to natural revelation were made for 
the very purpose of indicting the espoused beliefs of his audience. 

His allusion to their religious nature has already been dis- 
cussed. In addition, verses 26-27 show that Paul taught that God's 
providential government of history was calculated to bring men to 
Him; they should have known Him from His works. Paul's appeal 
to providence was conspicuous at Lystra as well (Acts 14:17). The 

2^J. H. Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek 
New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), p. 324. 

25Van Til, Paul at Athens, p. 5. 


goodness of God should lead men to repentance (cf. Rom. 2:4). Acts 
17:27 indicates that God's providential governance of history 
should bring men to seek God, "if perhaps" they might feel after 
Him. The subordinate clause here expresses an unlikely 
contingency. 2^ The natural man's seeking and finding God cannot 
be taken for granted. Citing Psalm 14:2-3 in Romans 3:11-12, Paul 
clearly said: "There is none that seeks after God; they have all 
turned aside and together become unprofitable." Returning to Acts 
17:27, even if the unregenerate should attempt to find God, he 
would at best "feel after" Him. This verb is the same as that used 
by Homer for the groping about of the blinded Cyclops. Plato used 
the word for amateur guesses at the truth. Far from showing what 
Lightfoot thought was "a clear appreciation of the elements of 
truth contained in their philosophy"^''' at Athens, Paul taught that 
the eyes of the unbeliever had been blinded to the light of God's 
revelation. Pagans do not interpret natural revelation correctly, 
coming to the light of the truth here and there; they grope about in 
darkness. Hence Paul viewed men as blameworthy for not holding 
fast to the knowledge of God which came to them in creation and 
providence. The rebellious are left without an excuse due to God's 
general revelation (Rom. 1:19-23). 

Paul's perspective in Acts 17 is quite evidently identical with 
that in Romans 1. In both places he teaches that unbelievers have 
a knowledge of God which they suppress, thereby meriting condem- 
nation; their salvation requires a radical conversion from the ig- 
norance of heathendom. G. C. Berkouwer puts it this way: 

The antithesis looms large in every encounter with heathendom. 
It is directed, however, against the maligning that heathendom 
does to the revealed truth of God in nature and it calls for conver- 
sion to the revelation of God in Christ. ^^ 

So it is that Paul's appeals to general revelation function to point 
out the guilt of the unbeliever as he mishandles the truth of God. 
He is responsible because he possesses the truth, but he is guilty for 
what he does to the truth. Both aspects of the unbeliever's relation 
to natural revelation must be kept in mind. When evidence is 
found of the unbeliever's awareness of the truth of God's revelation 
around and within him, Paul uses it as an indicator of the unbe- 
liever's culpability, and the apostle shows that it needs to be under- 
stood and interpreted in terms of the special revelation which is 

^^Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament (Boston: Lee and Shepherd 
Publishers, 1872), 2:198. 

2^J. B. Lightfoot, "St. Paul and Seneca," St. Paul's Epistle to the Phi- 
lippians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953), p. 304. 

^^Berkouwer, General Revelation, p. 145. 


brought by Christ's commissioned representative. Where natural 
revelation plays a part in Christian apologetics, that revelation 
must be "read through the glasses" of special revelation. 

In Acts 17:27, heathen philosophers are said at best to grope in 
darkness after God. This inept groping is not due to any deficiency 
in God or His revelation. The philosophers grope, "even though 
God is not far from each one of us." Verse 28 begins with the word, 
"for," and thereby offers a clarification or illustration of the state- 
ment that God is quite near at hand even for blinded pagan 
thinkers. The unbeliever's failure to find God and his acknow- 
ledged ignorance is not an innocent matter, and Paul demonstrates 
this by quoting two pagan poets. The strange idea that these quota- 
tions stand "as proof in the same way as biblical quotations in the 
other speeches of Acts"^^ is not only contrary to Paul's decided em- 
phasis in his theology upon the unique authority of God's word, but 
it simply will not comport with the context of the Areopagus ad- 
dress wherein the groping, unrepentant ignorance of pagan religi- 
osity is declared forcefully. Paul quotes the pagan writers to mani- 
fest their guilt. Since God is near at hand to all men, since His 
revelation impinges on them continually, they cannot escape a 
knowledge of their Creator and Sustainer. They are without excuse 
for their perversion of the truth. Paul makes the point that even 
pagans, contrary to their spiritual disposition (I Cor. 2:14), possess 
a knowledge of God which, though suppressed, renders them guilty 
before the Lord (Rom. l:18ff.). 

Paul supports this point before the Areopagus by showing that 
even pantheistic Stoics are aware of, and obliquely express, God's 
nearness and man's dependence upon Him. Epimenides the Cretan 
is quoted from a quatrain in an address to Zeus: "in him we live 
and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28a; interestingly, Paul 
quotes another line from this same quatrain in Titus 1:12). The 
phrase "in him" would have denoted in idiomatic Greek of the first 
century (especially in Jewish circles) the thought of "in his power" 
or "by him." This declaration — "By him we live . . ." — is not at all 
parallel to Paul's theology of the believer's mystical union with 
Christ, often expressed in terms of our being "in Christ." Rather, 
Acts 17:28 is closer to the teaching of Colossians 1:15-17, "in him 
were all things created . . . and in him all things consist." The 
stress falls on "man's absolute dependence on God for his 
existence,"^° even though the original writing which Paul quoted 
had aimed to prove that Zeus was not dead from the fact that men 
live — the order of which thought is fully reversed in Paul's think- 

^^Haenchen, Acts Commentary, p. 525. 
^"Gartner, Areopagus Speech, p. 188. 


ing (viz., men live because God lives). Paul's second quotation is in- 
troduced with the words, "as certain of your own poets have said." 
His use of the plural is further evidence of his educated familiarity 
with Greek thought, for as a matter of fact the statement which is 
quoted can be found in more than one writer. Paul quotes his fel- 
low Cilician, Aratus, as saying "for we are also his offspring" (from 
the poem on "Natural Phenomena," which is also echoed in 
Cleanthes' "Hymn to Zeus"). Paul could agree to the formal state- 
ment that we are God's "offspring"; however, he would certainly 
have said by way of qualification what the Stoics did not say, 
namely that we are children of God merely in a natural sense and 
not a supernatural sense (John 1:12), and even at that we are quite 
naturally "children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3). Yes, we can be 
called the offspring of God, but certainly not in the intended pan- 
theistic sense of Aratus or Cleanthes! Knowing the historical and 
philosophical context in which Paul spoke, and noting the polemi- 
cal thrusts of the Areopagus address, we cannot accept any inter- 
preter's hasty pronouncement to the effect that Paul "cites these 
teachings with approval unqualified by allusion to a 'totally differ- 
ent frame of reference. '"^^ Those who make such remarks eventual- 
ly are forced to acknowledge the qualification anyway: e.g., "Paul 
is not commending their Stoic doctrine," and he "did not reduce his 
categories to theirs. "^^ 

Berkouwer is correct when he says "There is no hint here of a 
point of contact in the sense of a preparation for grace, as though 
the Athenians were already on the way to true knowledge of 
God. "^3 Paul was well enough informed to know, and able enough 
to read statements in context to see, that he did not agree with the 
intended meaning of these poets. He was certainly not saying that 
these philosophers had somehow arrived at unqualified, isolated, 
elements of the truth — that the Zeus of Stoic pantheism was a con- 
ceptual step toward the true God! 

This is to be explained only in connection with the fact that the 
heathen poets have distorted the truth of God .... Without this 
truth there would be no false religiousness. This should not be 
confused with the idea that false religion contains elements of the 
truth and gets its strength from those elements. This kind of 
quantitative analysis neglects the nature of the distortion carried 

^'Gordon R. Lewis, "Mission to the Athenians" part IV, Seminary 
Study Series (Denver: Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, No- 
vember, 1964), p. 7; cf pp. 1, 6, 8, and part III, p. 5. 

32Ibid., part III, p. 2; part IV, p. 6. 

^^Berkouwer, General Revelation, p. 143. 


on by false religion. Pseudo-religion witnesses to the truth of God 
in its apostasy. 3^ 

Within the ideological context of Stoicism and pantheism, of 
course, the declarations of the pagan philosophers about God were 
not true. And Paul was surely not committing the logical fallacy of 
equivocation by using pantheistically conceived premises to sup- 
port a biblically theistic conclusion. Rather, Paul appealed to the 
distorted teachings of the pagan authors as evidence that the pro- 
cess of theological distortion cannot fully rid men of their natural 
knowledge of God. Certain expressions of the pagans manifest this 
knowledge as suppressed. Within the philosophical context es- 
poused by the ungodly writer, the expressions were put to a false 
use. Within the framework of God's revelation — a revelation clear- 
ly received by all men but hindered in unrighteousness, a revela- 
tion renewed in writing in the scriptures possessed by Paul — these 
expressions properly expressed a truth of God. Paul did not utilize 
pagan ideas in his Areopagus address. He used pagan expressions 
to demonstrate that ungodly thinkers have not eradicated all idea, 
albeit suppressed and distorted, of the living and true God. F. F. 
Bruce remarks: 

Epimenides and Aratus are not invoked as authorities in their 
own right; certain things which they said, however, can be under- 
stood as pointing to the knowledge of God. But the knowledge of 
God presented in the speech is not rationalistically conceived or 
established; it is the knowledge of God taught by Hebrew 
prophets and sages. It is rooted in the fear of God; it belongs to the 
same order as truth, goodness, and covenant-love; for lack of it 
men and women perish; in the coming day of God it will fill the 
earth 'as the waters cover the sea' (Is. 11:9). The 'delicately suited 
allusions' to Stoic and Epicurean tenets which have been dis- 
cerned in the speech, like the quotations from pagan poets, have 
their place as points of contact with the audience, but they do not 
commit the speaker to acquiescence in the realm of ideas to which 
they originally belong.^^ 

Paul demonstrated that even in their abuse of the truth pagans 
cannot avoid the truth of God; they must first have it in order that 
they might then distort it. As Ned B. Stonehouse observed, 

The apostle Paul, reflecting upon their creaturehood, and upon 
their religious faith and practice, could discover within their pa- 
gan religiosity evidences that the pagan poets in the very act of 
suppressing and perverting the truth presupposed a measure of 
awareness of it.^^ 

s^Ibid., p. 144. 

^^F. F. Bruce, "Paul and the Athenians," The Expository Times 88 (Oc- 
tober, 1976): 11. 

^^Stonehouse, Paul Before the Areopagus, p. 30. 


Their own statements unwittingly convicted the pagans of their 
knowledge of God, suppressed in unrighteousness. About the pagan 
quotations Van Til observes: 

They could say this adventitiously only. That is, it would be in ac- 
cord with what they deep down in their hearts knew to be true in 
spite of their systems. It was that truth which they sought to 
cover up by means of their professed systems, which enabled them 
to discover truth as philosophers and scientists.^'' 

Men are engulfed by God's clear revelation; try as they may, the 
truth which they possess in their heart of hearts cannot be escaped, 
and inadvertently it comes to expression. They do not explicitly un- 
derstand it properly; yet these expressions are a witness to their in- 
ward conviction and culpability. Consequently Paul could take ad- 
vantage of pagan quotations, not as an agreed upon ground for 
erecting the message of the gospel, but as a basis for calling unbe- 
lievers to repentance for their flight from God. "Paul appealed to 
the heart of the natural man, whatever mask he might wear."^^ 

Scriptural Presuppositions 

In Acts 17:24-31 Paul's language is principally based on the 
Old Testament. There is little justification for the remark of Lake 
and Cadbury that this discourse used a secular style of speech, 
omitting quotations from the Old Testament.^^ Paul's utilization of 
Old Testament materials is rather conspicuous. For instance, we 
can clearly see Isaiah 42:5 coming to expression in Acts 17:24-25, 
as this comparison indicates: 

Thus saith God Jehovah, he that created the heavens and 
stretched them forth; he that spread abroad the earth and that 
which Cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon 
it . . . (Isaiah 42:5). 

The God that made the world and all things therein, he, being 
Lord of heaven and earth . . . giveth to all life, and breath, and all 
things (Acts 17:24,25). 

In the Isaiah pericope, the prophet goes on to indicate that the 
Gentiles can be likened to men with eyes blinded by a dark dun- 
geon (42:7), and in the Areopagus address Paul goes on to say that 
if men seek after God, it is as though they are groping in darkness 
(i.e., the sense for the Greek phrase "feel after Him," 17:27). Isa- 
iah's development of thought continues on to the declaration that 
God's praise ought not to be given to graven imnages (42:8), while 

3Wan Til, Paul at Athens, p. 12. 

38Ibid., p. 2. 

^^Lake and Cadbury, Acts of the Apostles, p. 209. 


Paul's address advances to the statement that "we ought not to 
think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven 
by the art and device of men (17:29). It surely seems as though the 
prophetic pattern of thought is in the back of the apostle's mind. F. 
F. Bruce correctly comments on Paul's method of argumentation 
before the Areopagus: 

He does not argue from the sort of "first principles" which formed 
the basis of the various schools of Greek philosophy; his exposi- 
tion and defence of his message are founded on the biblical revela- 
tion of God .... Unlike some later apologists who followed in his 
steps, Paul does not cease to be fundamentally biblical in his ap- 
proach to the Greeks, even when (as on this occasion) his biblical 
emphasis might appear to destroy his chances of success."*" 

Those who have been trained to think that the apologist must 
adjust his epistemological authority or method in terms of the 
mindset of his hearers as he finds them will find the Areopagus ad- 
dress quite surprising in this respect. Although Paul is addressing 
an audience which is not committed or even predisposed to the re- 
vealed scriptures, namely educated Gentiles, his speech is never- 
theless a typically Jewish polemic regarding God, idolatry, and 
judgment! Using Old Testament language and concepts, Paul de- 
clared that God is the Creator, a Spirit who does not reside in man- 
made houses (v. 24). God is self-sufficient, and all men are depend- 
ent upon Him (v. 25). He created all men from a common ancestor 
and is the Lord of history (v. 26). Paul continued to teach God's dis- 
approbation for idolatry (v. 29), His demand for repentance (v. 30), 
and His appointment of a final day of judgment (v. 31). In these re- 
spects Paul did not say anything that an Old Testament prophet 
could not have addressed to the Jews. As the Lord Creator (cf. Is. 
42:5), God does not dwell in temples made by hand — the very same 
point spoken before the Jews by Stephen in his defense regarding 
statements about the Jerusalem temple which God himself com- 
manded to be built (Acts 7:48). Both Paul and Stephen hearkened 
back to the Old Testament, where it was taught that the heavens 
cannot contain God, and so neither could a man-made house (I 
Kings 8:27; Is. 66:1). And if God is not limited by a house erected 
by men, neither is He served by the sacrifices brought to such tem- 
ples (Acts 17:25). Paul undoubtedly recalled the words of God 
through the Psalmist, "If I were hungry, I would not tell thee; For 
the world is mine, and the fulness thereof. Will I eat the flesh of 
bulls, or drink the blood of goats?" (Psalm 50:12-13). The Areopa- 
gus address stresses the fact that "life" comes from God (v. 25), in 
whom "we live" (v. 28); such statements may have been subtle allu- 

^°F. F. Bruce, The Defence of the Gospel in the New Testament, pp. 38, 


sions to the etymology of the name of Zeus (zao in Greek, meaning 
'to Hve') — the god exalted in the poetry of Aratus and Epimenides. 
The genuine Lord of life was Jehovah, the Creator, who in many 
ways was self-sufficient and very different from the Zeus of popular 
mythology or of pantheistic speculation. God has appointed the 
various seasons (or epochs) and boundaries of men (Acts 
17:26) — even as the Psalmist wrote, "Thou hast set all the borders 
of the earth; Thou hast made summer and winter" (Psalm 74:17). 
Paul's mention of "appointed seasons" referred either to the regu- 
lar seasons of the year (as in Acts 14:17, "fruitful seasons") or to 
the appointed periods for each nation's existence and prominence.*^ 
Either way, his doctrine was rooted in the Old Testament — the 
Noahic covenant (Genesis 8:22) or Daniel's interpretation of 
dreams (Daniel 2:36-45). Another point of contact between the 
Areopagus apologetic and the Old Testament is obvious in Acts 
17:29. Paul indicated that nothing which is produced by man (i.e., 
any work of art) can be thought of as the producer of man. Here 
Paul's polemic is taken right out of the Old Testament prophets 
(e.g.. Is. 40:18-20). No idol can be likened to God or thought of as 
His image. God's image is found elsewhere, in the work of His own 
hands (cf. Genesis 1:27), and He thus prohibited the making of oth- 
er pseudo-images of Himself ("Thou shalt not make unto thee a 
graven image . . . ," Exodus 20:4). Paul's reasoning was steeped in 
God's special revelation. 

Consistent with his teaching in the epistles, then, Paul re- 
mained on solid Christian ground when he disputed with the phi- 
losophers. He reasoned from the Scripture, thereby refuting any 
supposed dichotomy in his apologetic method between his approach 
to the Jews and his approach to the Gentiles. In any and all apolo- 
getic encounters Paul began and ended with God. "He was himself 
for no instant neutral.""*^ "Like the biblical revelation itself, his 
speech begins with God the creator of all, continues with God the 
sustainer of all, and concludes with God the judge of all.""*^ He had 
previously established his hearers' ignorance; so they were in no 
position to generate knowledgeable refutations of Paul's position. 
He had also indicated his authority to declare the truth; this was 
now reinforced by his appeal to the self-evidencing authority of 
God's revelation in the Old Testament scriptures. Finally, he had 
established his audience's awareness and accountability to the 
truth of God in natural revelation. Paul now provides the interpre- 

''iCompare Gartner, Areopagus Speech, pp. 147-152, with Haenchen, 
Acts Commentary, p. 523. 

^^Berkouwer, General Revelation, pp. 142-143. 

'*3F. F. Bruce, "Paul and the Athenians," p. 9. 


tive context of special revelation to rectify the distorted handling of 
previous natural revelation and to supplement its teaching with 
the way of redemption. 

Pressing the Antithesis 

The themes of Paul's address in Acts 17 parallel those of Ro- 
mans 1: creation, providence, man's dependence, man's sin, future 
judgment. Paul boldly sets the revelational perspective over 
against the themes of Athenian philosophy. The statements of 
Paul's Areopagus address could hardly have been better calculated 
to reflect Biblical theology while contradicting the doctrines of pa- 
gan philosophy. Paul did not appeal to Stoic doctrines in order to 
divide his audience (a ploy used in Acts 23:6).*^ Rather he philo- 
sophically offended both the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in 
his audience, pressing teaching which was directly antithetical to 
their distinctives. 

Against the monism of the philosophers Paul taught that God 
had created all things (v. 24; cf. Ex. 20:11; Ps. 146:6; Is. 37:16; 
42:5). This precluded the materialism of the Epicureans and the 
pantheism of the Stoics. Against naturalistic and immanentistic 
views Paul proclaimed supernatural transcendence. As his listen- 
ers looked upon the parthenon, Paul declared that God does not 
dwell in temples made with hands (I Kings 8:27; Is. 66:1-2). 

God needs nothing from man; on the contrary man depends on 
God for everything (v. 25; cf. Ps. 50:9-12; Is. 42:5). The philosophers 
of Athens should thus do all things to God's glory — which is inclu- 
sive of bringing every thought captive to Him, and thereby re- 
nouncing their putative autonomy. Paul's teaching of the unity of 
the human race (v. 26a) was quite a blow to the Athenians' pride in 
their being indigenous to the soil of Attica, and it assaulted their 
felt superiority over "barbarians". Paul's insistence that God was 
not far from any would deflate the Stoic's pride in his elitist know- 
ledge of God (v. 27b). Over against a uniform commitment to the 
concept of fate Paul set forth the biblical doctrine of God's provi- 
dence (v. 26b; cf. Dt. 32:8); God is not remote from or indifferent to 
the world of men. 

Upon the legendary founding by Athena of the Areopagus 
court, Apollo had declared (according to Aeschylus): "When the 
dust drinks up a man's blood. Once he has died, there is no resur- 
rection." However, the apostle Paul forcefully announced the resur- 

**Contrary to E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles, An Historical 
Commentary, in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R. V. G. 
Tasker (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 140-141. 


rection of Jesus Christ, a fact which assures all men that He will 
judge the world at the consummation (Ps. 9:8; 96:13; 98:9; Dan. 
7:13; Jn. 5:27; Rom. 2:16) — a doctrine which contravened the Greek 
views of both cyclic and eternal history. The Epicureans were de- 
ceived to think that at death man's body simply decomposed, and 
that thus there was no fear of judgment; the resurrection refuted 
their ideas, just as it disproved the notion that the body is a dis- 
dainful prison. Throughout Paul's address the common scepticism 
about theological knowledge found in the philosophic schools was 
obviously challenged by Paul's pronounced authority and ability to 
openly proclaim the final truth about God. 

Calling for Repentance and Change of Mindset 

One can hardly avoid the conclusion that Paul was not seeking 
areas of agreement or common notions with his hearers. At every 
point he set his biblical position in antithetical contrast to their 
philosophical beliefs, undermining their assumptions and exposing 
their ignorance. He did not seek to add further truths to a pagan 
foundation of elementary truth. Paul rather challenged the founda- 
tions of pagan philosophy and called the philosophers to full repent- 
ance (v. 30). 

The new era which has commenced with the advent and minis- 
try of Jesus Christ has put an end to God's historical overlooking of 
nations which lived in unbelief. At Lystra Paul declared that in 
past generations God "allowed all nations to walk in their own 
ways" (Acts 14:16), although now He was calling them to turn from 
their vanities to the living God (14:15). Previously God had shown 
forbearance toward the sins of the Jews as well (cf. Romans 3:25). 
However, with the advent of Christ, there has been a new begin- 
ning. Sins once committed in culpable ignorance have been made 
even less excusable by the redemptive realities of the gospel. Even 
in the past God's forbearance ought to have led men to repentance 
(Romans 2:4). How much more, then, should men now respond to 
their guilt by repenting before God for their sins. The lenience of 
God demonstrates that His concentration of effort is toward the sal- 
vation rather than judgment of men (cf. John 3:17). This mercy and 
patience must not be spurned. Men everywhere are now required to 
repent. In Paul's perspective on redemptive history, he can simply 
say by way of summary: "Now is the acceptable time" (II Cor. 6:2). 
As guilty as men had been in the past, God had passed over con- 
frontation with them. Unlike in Israel, messengers had not come to 
upbraid the Gentiles and declare the punishment they deserved. 
God had "overlooked" (not "winked at" with its inappropriate con- 


notations) the former times of ignorance (Acts 17:30). Whereas in 
the past He had allowed the pagans to walk in their own ways, now 
with the perfect revelation which has come in Jesus Christ, God 
commands repentance (a "change of mind") of all men and sends 
messengers to them toward that end. Paul wanted the philosophers 
at Athens to not simply refine their thinking a bit further and add 
some missing information to it; but rather to abandon their presup- 
positions and have a complete change of mind, submitting to the 
clear and authoritative revelation of God. If they would not repent 
it would be an indication of their love for ignorance and hatred of 
genuine knowledge. 

Paul's appeal to them to repent was grounded not in autono- 
mous argumentation but the presupposed authority of God's Son (v. 
31), an authority for which there was none more ultimate in Paul's 
reasoning. Paul's hearers were told that they must repent, for God 
had appointed a day of final judgment; if the philosophers did not 
undergo a radical shift in their mindset and confess their sinful- 
ness before God, they would have to face the wrath of God on the 
day of final accounting. 

To whom would they have to give account? At this point Paul 
introduced the "Son of Man eschatology" of the gospels. The judg- 
ment would take place by a man (literally, a 'male') who had been 
ordained to this function by God. This man is the "Son of Man" 
mentioned in Daniel 7:13. In John 5:27, Christ spoke of himself, 
saying that the Father "gave him authority to execute judgment, 
because he is the Son of Man." After His resurrection Christ 
charged the apostles "to preach unto the people and to testify that 
this is he who is ordained of God to be the Judge of the living and 
the dead" (Acts 10:42). Paul declared this truth in his Areopagus 
apologetic, going on to indicate that God had given "assurance" or 
proof of the fact that Christ would be mankind's final Judge. This 
proof was provided by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the 

To be accurate, it is important for us to note that the resurrec- 
tion was evidence in Paul's argumentation, it was not the conclu- 
sion of his argumentation. He was arguing, not for the resurrec- 
tion, but for final judgment by Christ. The misleading assumption 
made by many popular evangelical apologists is that Paul here en- 
gaged in an attempted proof of the resurrection — although nothing 
of the sort is mentioned by Luke. Proof by means of the resurrec- 
tion is mistakenly seen in verse 31 as proof of the resurrection.^^ 
Others know better than to read such an argument into the text 

'^^E.g., R. C. Sproul, tape "Paul at Mars' Hill," in the series Exegetical 
Bible Studies: Acts (Pennsylvania: Ligonier Valley Study Center), tape 


and hold that detailed proof of the resurrection was cut short in 
Paul's address.*^ He would have proceeded to this line of reasoning, 
we are told, if he had not been interrupted by his mocking hearers. 
Once again, however, such an interpretation gains whatever plau- 
sibility it has with an interpreter in terms of preconceived notions, 
rather than in terms of textual support. F. F. Bruce remarks, 
"There is no ground for supposing that the ridicule with which 
some of his hearers received his reference to Jesus' rising from the 
dead seriously curtailed the speech he intended to make."'*'' Haen- 
chen says, "There is no hint that Paul is interrupted"; the speech 
as it appears in Acts 17 "is inherently quite complete."'*^ Paul pro- 
claimed that Christ had been appointed the final Judge of man- 
kind, as His resurrection from the dead evidenced. The Apostle did 
not supply an empirical argument for the resurrection, but argued 
theologically from the fact of the resurrection to the final judg- 
ment. For Paul, even in apologetical disputes before unbelieving 
philosophers, there was no authority more ultimate than that of 
Christ. This epistemological attitude was most appropriate in light 
of the fact that Christ would be the ultimate Judge of man's every 
thought and belief. 

The Outcome of Paul's Apologetic 

Acts 17:32-34 (American Standard Version) 

(32) Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some 
mocked; but others said. We will hear thee concerning this yet 

(33) Thus Paul went out from among them. 

(34) But certain men clave unto him, and believed: among whom 
also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, 
and others with them. 

Had Paul spoken of the immortality of the soul, his message 
might have appeared plausible to at least some of the philsophers 
in his audience. However all disdained the idea of the resuscitation 
of a corpse. When Paul concluded his discourse with reference to 
the resurrection of Christ, such an apparent absurdity led some 
hearers to "sneer" in open mockery of Paul. There is some question 
as to what should be made of another reaction mentioned by Luke 
— namely, that some said they would hear Paul again on this mat- 

■^^E.g., Blaiklock, Acts, Historical Commentary, p. 142; Everett F. Har- 
rison, Acts: The Expanding Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 272. 

47F. F. Bruce, Book of Acts, p. 362. 

''^Haenchen, Acts Commentary, p. 526. 


ter. This may have been a polite procrastination serving as a 
brush-off,^^ an indication that this segment of the audience was 
confused or bewildered with the message,^" or evidence that some 
wistfully hoped that Paul's proclamation might prove to be true.^^ 
One way or another, it should not have been thought impossible by 
anybody in Paul's audience that God could raise the dead (cf. Acts 
26:8), but as long as this philosophical assumption controlled their 
thinking, the philosophers would never be induced to accept the 
fact of the resurrection or allow it to make a difference in their out- 

Until the Holy Spirit regenerates the sinner and brings him to 
repentance, his presuppositions will remain unaltered. And as long 
as the unbeliever's presuppostions are unchanged a proper accep- 
tance and understanding of the good news of Christ's historical res- 
urrection will be impossible. The Athenian philosophers had origi- 
nally asked Paul for an account of his doctrine of resurrection. Af- 
ter his reasoned defense of the hope within him and his challenge 
to the philosopher's presuppositions, a few were turned around in 
their thinking. But many refused to correct their presuppositions, 
so that when Paul concluded with Christ's resurrection they ridi- 
culed and mocked. 

Acceptance of the facts is governed by one's most ultimate as- 
sumptions, as Paul was well aware. Paul began his apologetic with 
God and His revelation; he concluded his apologetic with God and 
His revelation. The Athenian philosophers began their dispute 
with Paul in an attitude of cynical unbelief about Christ's resurrec- 
tion; they concluded the dispute in cynical unbelief about Christ's 
resurrection. However, Paul knew and demonstrated that the 
"closed system" of the philosophers was a matter of dialectical 
pseudo-wisdom and ignorance. Their view that God dwelt in im- 
penetrable mystery undermined their detailed teaching about Him. 
Their view that historical eventuation was a matter of irrational 
fate was contravened by their conviction that all things are me- 
chanistically determined, and so on. In their "wisdom" they had be- 
come utterly ignorant of the ultimate truth. 

Paul knew that the explanation of their hostility to God's reve- 
lation (even though they evidenced an inability to escape its force- 
fulness) was to be found in their desire to exercise control over God 
(e.g., V. 29) and to avoid facing up to the fact of their deserved pun- 

49Harrison, Acts, p. 273. 

^"Lake and Cadbury, Acts of the Apostles, p. 219. 

^iJ. S. Steward, A Faith to Proclaim (New York: Charles Scribner's 
Sons, 1953), p. 117. 


ishment before the judgment seat of God (v. 30). They secretly 
hoped that ignorance would be bliss, and so preferred darkness to 
light (John 3:19-20). So Paul "went out from among them" (v. 
33) — a statement which expresses nothing about his apologetic be- 
ing cut short, and which gives no evidence that Paul was somehow 
disappointed with his effort. Such thoughts must be read into the 

The minds of the Athenian philosophers could not be changed 
simply by appealing to a few disputed, particular facts, for their 
philosophical presuppositions determined what they would make of 
the facts. Nor could their minds be altered by reasoning with them 
on the basis of their own fundamental assumptions; to make com- 
mon cause with their philosophy would simply have been to con- 
firm their commitment to it. Their minds could be changed only by 
challenging their whole way of thought with the completely differ- 
ent worldview of the gospel, calling them to renounce the inherent 
foolishness of their own philosohical perspectives and to repent for 
their suppression of the truth about God. 

Such a complete mental revolution, allowing for a well- 
grounded and philosophically defensible knowledge of the truth, 
can be accomplished by the grace of God (cf. II Tim. 2:25). Thus 
Luke informs us that as Paul left the Areopagus meeting, "certain 
men clave unto him and believed" (v. 34). There is a note of tri- 
umph in Luke's observation that some within Paul's audience be- 
came believers as a result of his apologetic presentation. He men- 
tions conspicuously that a member of the Areopagus Counsel, Dio- 
nysius, became a Christian, as well as a woman who was well 
enough known to be mentioned by name, Damaris. These were but 
some converts "among others." Ecclesiastical tradition dating from 
around 170 A.D. says that Dionysius was appointed by Paul as the 
first elder in Athens. (In the fifth century certain pseudepigraphi- 
cal works of a neoplatonic character made use of his name.) How- 
ever Luke himself mentions no church having been planted in 
Athens, as we would have expected an educated Gentile to mention 
if a church had been started in Athens. Indeed, a family residing in 
Corinth was taken by Paul as the ecclesiastical "firstfruits of 
Achaia" (I Cor. 16:15). Apparently no church was immediately 
developed in the city of Athens, even though patristic writers (es- 
pecially Origen) mention a church being in Athens — eventually 
getting under way sometime after Paul's ministry there, so it 
seems. The earliest post-apostolic apologists, Quadratus and Aris- 
tides, wrote during the time of Emperor Hadrian, and both were 
from Athens. However we choose to reconstruct the ecclesiastical 
history of the city, it is plain that Paul's work there was not futile. 
By God's grace it did see success, and his apologetic method can be 


a guide and goad for us today. Would that we had the boldness in a 
proud university setting, enjoying the highest level of culture of 
the day, to proclaim clearly to the learned philosophers, with their 
great minds, that they are in fact ignorant idolaters who must re- 
pent in light of the coming judgment by God's resurrected Son. 

Observations in Retrospect 

(1) Paul's Areopagus address in Acts 17 has been found to set 
forth a classic and exemplary encounter between Christian com- 
mitment and secular thinking — between "Jerusalem and Athens." 
The Apostle's apologetical method for reasoning with educated un- 
believers who did not acknowledge scriptural authority turns out 
to be a suitable pattern for our defending the faith today. 

(2) Judging from Paul's treatment of the Athenian philoso- 
phers, he was not prepared to dismiss their learning, but neither 
would he let it exercise corrective control over his Christian pers- 
pective. The two realms of thought were obviously dealing with 
common questions, but Paul did not work to integrate apparently 
supportive elements from pagan philosophy into his system of 
Christian thought. Because of the truth-distorting and ignorance- 
engendering character of unbelieving thought, Paul's challenge 
was that all reasoning be placed within the presuppositional con- 
text of revelational truth and Christian commitment. The relation 
"Athens" should sustain to "Jerusalem" was one of necessary de- 

(3) Rather than trying to construct a natural theology upon the 
philosophical platform of his opponents — assimilating autonomous 
thought wherever possible — Paul's approach was to accentuate the 
antithesis between himself and the philosophers. He never as- 
sumed a neutral stance, knowing that the natural theology of the 
Athenian philosophers was inherently a natural idolatry. He could 
not argue from their unbelieving premises to biblical conclusions 
without equivocation in understanding. Thus his own distinctive 
outlook was throughout placed over against the philosophical com- 
mitments of his hearers. 

(4) Nothing remotely similar to what is called in our day the 
historical argument for Christ's resurrection plays a part in Paul's 
reasoning with the philosophers. The declaration of Christ's histor- 
ical resurrection was crucial, of course, to his presentation. How- 
ever he did not argue for it independently on empirical grounds as 
a brute historical — yet miraculous — event, given then an apostolic 
interpretation. Argumentation about a particular fact would not 
force a shift in the unbeliever's presuppositional framework of 


thought. Paul's concern was with this basic and controlhng per- 
spective or web of central convictions by which the particulars of 
history would be weighed and interpreted. 

(5) In pursuing the presuppositional antithesis between Chris- 
tian commitment and secular philosophy, Paul consistently took as 
his ultimate authority Christ and God's word — not independent 
speculation and reasoning, not allegedly indisputable eyeball facts 
of experience, not the satisfaction or peace felt within his heart. 
God's revelational truth — learned through his senses, understood 
with his mind, comforting his heart, and providing the context for 
all life and thought — was his self-evidencing starting point. It was 
the presuppositional platform for authoritatively declaring the 
truth, and it was presented as the sole reasonable option for men to 

(6) Paul's appeal was to the inescapable knowledge of God 
which all men have in virtue of being God's image and in virtue of 
His revelation through nature and history. A point of contact could 
be found even in pagan philosophers due to their inalienable reli- 
gious nature. Paul indicated that unbelievers are conspicuously 
guilty for distorting and suppressing the truth of God. 

(7) In motivation and direction Paul's argumentation with the 
Athenian philosophers was presuppositional. He set two fundamen- 
tal worldviews in contrast, exhibiting the ignorance which results 
from the unbeliever's commitments, and presenting the precondi- 
tion of all knowledge — God's revelation — as the only reasonable al- 
ternative. His aim was to effect an overall change in outlook and 
mindset, to call the unbeliever to repentance, by following the two- 
fold procedure of internally critiquing the unbeliever's position and 
presenting the necessity of the Scripture's truth. Through it all, it 
should also be observed, Paul remained respectful yet earnest. His 
manner was one of humble boldness.